Civil society organizations and Cambodia’s banned opposition party have called on the government to release detailed information about revenue it is earning from the petroleum industry, days after the country struck oil following a decades-long quest.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced on social media that Cambodia had extracted its first drop of crude oil from fields in the Gulf of Thailand following 30 years of delays. The production, which began Monday, is the result of a joint venture between Singapore’s KrisEnergy Ltd. and the Cambodian government.
The government, which owns a 5 percent stake in the venture, signed an agreement with KrisEnergy in 2017 to develop more than 3,000 square kilometers of the Khmer basin in the gulf, known as Block A. Development of the field, which was originally expected to begin production last year, will proceed in phases, both sides said.
Anti-corruption groups and senior officials from the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) applauded the milestone but were quick to demand transparent and efficient revenue management.
Pech Pisey, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, told RFA’s Khmer Service that revenue from the oil business will be a welcome source of government income in addition to agriculture, tourism, and other sectors.
He said the revenue from the oil business must be used to strengthen education and health, as well as to expand infrastructure and access to water—projects he called “the foundations of building an economy for the next generation of Cambodians.”
However, Pech Pisey said that several watchdog groups have expressed concerns over management of revenue from the oil business “because Cambodia has a bad reputation regarding corruption.”
Hun Sen has removed his political opposition and hobbled independent media and civil society, removing any means of ensuring accountability in his de facto one-party state.
“Because of the existing system of accountability, the integrity of the public sector is not yet strong,” Pech Pisey said.
“Concerns have been raised about transparency and the ability to effectively manage oil-intensive budgets and prevent losses through corruption, and so on.”
In his announcement on Tuesday, Hun Sen called the start of oil production “a blessing for Cambodia” and “an important first step” for the country towards building national capacity and the oil, gas, and energy industries.
He said oil production would be a boon for Cambodia’s economy from 2021 onwards and that revenues from the sector would be used to improve education and health, although he did not provide any figures.
“This oil revenue issue was raised 20 years ago … [but] I say do not determine which fish should be grilled, boiled or fried before catching them,” he said.
“Now the fish are caught, so [observers] can ask questions. Ask the question, ‘If you get the money what will you spend it on?’ I will tell you that I will give priority to education and health.”
Former CNRP lawmaker Um Sam An told RFA that Hun Sen will use the oil production to improve his popularity with the public amid a political stalemate in play since Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the opposition in November 2017 citing its role in an alleged plot to topple the government.
The move to dissolve the CNRP marked the beginning of a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Um Sam An acknowledged that oil extraction will benefit Cambodia if the revenue from the sector is used properly but warned that much of the money could end up secreted away by officials and Hun Sen’s family.
“Corruption in Cambodia is a problem,” he said. “Once the oil is pumped, large sums of money will go into the pockets of Hun Sen's senior government officials and it will be a curse, just like with some African countries.”
“So, I also ask Hun Sen how he can eliminate corruption and manage the income from the oil pumping effectively so there can be trust from the people. We hope that the money will be used to develop a real nation.”
Heng Kimhong, a program officer at the People Center for Development and Peace, hailed the success of the oil rig, but said poor technical management could impact Cambodia’s marine resources. He said the government should reassure people that the extraction of natural oil is being done according to high safety standards and is free from corruption.
“As Cambodians, as the owners of the country, we should know how our resources are being extracted or explored by companies and what kind of companies they are,” he said.
“How much will these projects benefit the Cambodian people? To ensure that there will be no corruption, we need transparency and freedom of the media.”
Concerns over management of oil revenues were echoed by members of the public, who called for measures to be put in place that ensure the money will be used to benefit society as a while, instead of only the well-connected.
Puy Lek, a resident of Siem Reap province, told RFA that the government must be fully transparent about how it allocates funds derived from the oil field.
“I urge the government to carefully manage the project so that our Cambodian youth can benefit from the oil in our country,” he said.
Sihanoukville province resident Son Sophat said the Ministry of Mines and Energy should issue monthly reports on the revenue from oil extraction and urged the government to carefully examine companies investing in the sector to avoid resource exploitation.
“We are worried that if the government doesn’t announce these figures, the money will be spent in an opaque manner,” he said.
Phnom Penh-based youth Komsat said he worries that if the government does not control corruption, the gap between wealthy and poor Cambodians will grow even wider.
“I want the Royal Government to organize a program for the next generation because the oil is our property,” he said.
Transparency International’s 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Cambodia 162nd out of 198 countries, down from 161st a year earlier.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.